Persuasive Analysis Essay on Literature

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Should Literature be Political?

Defining Political Literature:

To fully answer this question, it is important to establish the definition of literature. While literature is often taken to mean any written work, in this context, I have chosen to define literature as works of the creative imagination, including fiction, poetry, and drama. I also aim to clarify the definition of politics, and what it means to modern civilians. People’s impression of ‘politics’ tends to be of partisan politics, divisiveness, and smear campaigns in an attempt to ‘win points’ over others in a convoluted system that is foreign and inaccessible to modern voters. However, politics in its original form describes the art of governance, through which our lives are inevitably shaped. As such, political literature is simply the exploration of how we as people are governed, the effects that politics has on society, and people as individuals. In Orwell’s 1984, a totalitarian government numbs individuals to human emotions, transforming them into merely a cog in the political machine. In H.P. Lovecraft’s many short stories, an uncaring government and the scientific advances it sponsors create fear and destruction. Political literature often directly criticizes a current society or government by creating an alternate reality, where current political issues are pushed to an extreme.

Why People Write Political Literature:

Political literature itself even addresses this question, with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 set in a society that burns books in order to control dangerous ideas and painful concepts. However, in this dystopian society, it is the people themselves who choose to burn books and the government that agrees with the whims of the populace to further its own agenda. Despite this, the government is arguably presented as even more insidious, as it gives the people what they want even at the cost of critical thought, therefore creating a blind population that agrees with the government even at the cost of their own lives, exemplified by the nuclear Armageddon at the end of the novel. In comparison to Orwell’s Big Brother, it’s like being given a choice between murder and suicide.

The aim of all of these works of political literature is to explore how politics and government can be and warn against the issues highlighted in these books. Orwell’s 1984 warns about the dangers of official deception, secret surveillance, and manipulation of recorded history by totalitarian governments. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 warns about government censorship, and blindly trusting authority over our own critical thinking skills. In these books, authors write in the hope that their fears will be listened to, and their dystopian future will be avoided.

Origins of Political Literature:

Political literature has been around since literature and society itself. Some of the earliest examples are of the Greek playwright Aristophanes' political satire, written in 424 BC. Many of these plays contain criticism of powerful Athenian generals, suggesting that as long as a government exists, criticism (and by extension political literature) will too. A slightly more recent example would be Shakespeare’s work. Although Shakespeare never explicitly stated his political opinions, his impassioned speeches from characters such as Hamlet or Macbeth arguably speak for him. Many political themes repeatedly occur in his plays, and most of his plays have a clear political aspect. King Lear focuses on the politics of space. The Tempest raises questions concerning colonialism. Macbeth questions the legitimacy of rulers, and women’s place in society. Shakespeare managed to question the political order of his day while evading the extreme censorship present during the Elizabethan and Jacobean age.

His understanding of politics was so clear that Enoch Powell, a particularly famous Conservative politician, did not believe that Shakespeare himself wrote them, instead ‘I believe the plays were court productions written by courtiers, the modern word is 'politicians'’. His reason was he believed ‘they’re written by someone who has lived the life, who has been part of a life of politics and power, who knows what people feel when they are near to the center of power, near to the heat of the kitchen. It’s not something that can be transferred, it’s not something on which an author, just an author, can be briefed: “Oh, this is how it happened”; it comes straight out of the experience — straight out of personal observation — straight out of personal feeling.’ This is the wrong conclusion. Shakespeare’s awareness of politics stems from his understanding of man, and as man is a political animal, Shakespeare understood politics. This is further proof that literature is political because humans themselves are political. We are all part of politics because we are all citizens of somewhere, and we can therefore not escape how political decisions have shaped our lives and ourselves. Acknowledging the place of politics in our lives is part of accepting the responsibility of being human and of being a citizen. All literature is political in the way that it reflects the assumptions and opinions of a worldview.

Shakespeare’s reasons for writing are detailed in Hamlet when he instructs the players on how best to expose his father’s murderer: ‘Suit the action to the word, the word to the action with this special observance that you overstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is quite from the purpose of playing whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.’ A writer’s primary source of inspiration is the entire world that we live in; a world that continuously shapes us as we in turn shape it, through our poetry or fiction. The writer has no choice but to be engaged with society, which means political engagement.

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Why ask if literature should be political:

This question implies that literature is somehow lessened if it contains political beliefs, and is something that needs protecting from those politically minded writers. I would argue the reason people advocate for what is essentially censorship is that the authors of political literature often advocate change. Typically, those stating that literature should not be political argue that literature should be personal, however, author Jose Donoso argues that ‘all personal pain had to have at least a political subtext’. Robert Stone also wrote in his essay “The Reason for Stories: Toward a Moral Fiction,” published in Harper’s in 1988, ‘I believe that political pathology is necessarily more ‘important’ than private suffering. During times of political upheaval, the relationship between external reality and the individual’s interior world is destabilized.’ These authors argue that personal pain and political issues are inextricable, and correlated. How politics and governance are carried out affects us all, whether it is the price of food, how much tax you pay, or what you learn at school to bigger issues such as international conflict. Often personal pain is rooted, or exacerbated by these political decisions. Therefore literature is political because we as people are always affected by literature, even unconsciously. In the debate of political literature vs more personal literature, literature must be able to reflect the whole, the totality, of who we are.

Others argue that literature should not have political influences as it runs the risk of becoming offensive or outdated, such as H.P Lovecraft’s work, which has often been described as a thinly veiled call for segregation and white supremacy. For example, H.P. Lovecraft’s descriptions of various supernatural entities match closely with descriptions of racial minorities that were prevalent at the time. For example, in The Horror at Red Hook, a 1925 short story in which a white detective’s investigation takes him to a Brooklyn neighborhood full of dark-skinned monsters that perform satanic rituals. His inspiration is clearly detailed in a letter to fellow writer Clark Ashton Smith: ‘The idea that black magic exists in secret today, or that hellish antique rites still exist in obscurity, is one that I have used and shall use again. When you see my new tale 'The Horror at Red Hook', you will see what use I make of the idea in connexion with the gangs of young loafers & herds of evil-looking foreigners that one sees everywhere in New York.’ Lovecraft was obviously uncomfortable with the changing political climate of his era, and this is clearly felt in his extreme conservatism (‘I really am a relic left over from Queen Anne’s age’). This manifests in his writing. Often set in Lovecraft’s contemporary New England, his stories detailed innocent, western areas being invaded by unknown, dark forces/aliens that irrevocably change and destroy the society they join. Lovecraft’s fear of the unknown that presides over his work manifested in strong racist views, with his work often including crude stereotypes and slurs.

Despite this, Lovecraft’s work is more popular than ever, and the genre he practically created can be seen in all forms of art. I would argue that this is because scholars have historically been able to study and appreciate a work without agreeing with the sentiments described within said work. Banning or shunning literature like Lovecraft’s only ignores the fact that his descriptions of minorities were frequently used at the time. Discrimination and blatant racism did occur. Just because some literature is uncomfortable for modern readers, that does not necessarily mean it is bad or should be banned. Sometimes being uncomfortable is a good thing. It means that we are recognizing an issue, in this case, the racism that pervaded early 20th-century society. Edgar Lawrence Doctorow, the American novelist, argued that ‘the ultimate responsibility of the writer is to witness’. Therefore, to ban or censor political literature is to remove witnesses from history, even those on the wrong side of history. It would be unjust to forget the suffering of people of the past because the subject seems inappropriate. The world can be a painful place, full of hate of suffering, but it is still a reality.

Another argument offered is that literature should be escapism, free from political bias, but writers must take into account the current political climate to create literature that is both real and persuasive. I would argue that the real reason some argue that literature should not be political is elitism, the idea that literature is precious and should be kept separate from the ‘mob’ who promote revolution.

Why censorship is wrong:

The title of this discussion – ‘Should literature be political’ – exemplifies the problem with asking this question. The prescriptive ‘should’ create the impression that it is okay to dictate the subject matter of literature, therefore erasing any literature that does not fit those standards. The word ‘should’ is incompatible with literature, or art in general.

A great example of a political work of literature being subject to censorship is Ernest Hemingway’s A Call to Arms, published in 1929, only eleven years after the armistice that ended the First World War on the 11th of November 1918. Hemingway served in World War One as an ambulance driver with the American Red Cross. In June 1918, he was wounded by Austrian fire. While recuperating for six months in a Milan hospital, Hemingway fell in love with Agnes von Kurowsky, an American Red Cross nurse. His story bears a striking resemblance to A Call to Arms, which serves as further proof that literature is political because it is based on our lives and the political choices we make. As an American, Hemingway was not drafted but rather volunteered because of his political opinions. Hemingway once asserted “No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest”. If writers excluded their political experiences and opinions from their work, it would be lying, even by omission.

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Persuasive Analysis Essay on Literature. (2023, November 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 20, 2024, from
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